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Boychiks on base
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Boychiks on base

The Jewish-American experience via the national pastime

Scene from The Yankles
Scene from The Yankles

Just in time for opening day of the season, Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story will be one of the featured movies at the 11th annual New Jersey Jewish Film Festival, sponsored by JCC MetroWest.

The documentary — which will be screened as a baseball double feature on Sunday, April 3, at the Cooperman JCC, Ross Family Campus, West Orange — has been the darling of both film festival and JCC circuits since it was released last August.

Directed by Peter Miller, produced by Will Hechter and Miller, and narrated by Dustin Hoffman, the film juxtaposes Jewish participation in the Major Leagues with the collective experience of Jews at various stages in American history since the late 1800s.

With the late-19th- and early- 20th-century influx of Jewish immigrants trying to win acceptance into broader society, several aspiring athletes sought to hide their ethnicity from the teams — and scolding from their parents — by changing their names. (Somewhat ironically, cities with large Jewish populations actually sought out Jewish players to attract more customers to the ballparks.) Stories of travelling in the Deep South are somewhat reminiscent of those related by early African-American players, including incidents of their being barred from hotels accepting other team members as guests. Bill Terry, manager of a 1930s New York Giants club with Jews on its roster, told one hotel, “You will take all of us or you will take none of us.”

Jews in Baseball undoubtedly appeals to an older audience, fans who might have seen a Hank Greenberg or a Sandy Koufax on the diamond and appreciate the contributions and sacrifices of these superstars. Greenberg, the Hall of Fame outfielder for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and ’40s, played at a time when anti-Semitism was at a zenith on these shores due to the influence of Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, and the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. Greenberg, who lost four years of peak playing time when he enlisted in the military, said whenever he hit a home run, it was a blow against Hitler.

For boomer viewers, Koufax’s on-screen interview is perhaps the main attraction, since he has historically shied away from discussing his exploits (and his Judaism). In an interview, Ira Berkow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote the narrative for Jews and Baseball, spoke about the difficulties of getting Koufax to agree to participate in the project. The iconic figure finally gave in, understanding that such a film could not be considered definitive without him.

While the subject is unique, the style is somewhat overdone. Anyone who has seen a Ken Burns product will recognize the techniques employed in Jews and Baseball: the talking heads, the klezmer music in the background, the still photos and film clips. Much of the film considers Greenberg, Koufax, and Al Rosen, an American League Most Valuable Player and a multiple-time All-Star for the Cleveland Indians in the 1950s. While these gentlemen certainly deserve their due, it would have been nice to hear more from the dozen or so contemporary players (although the Red Sox’s Kevin Youkilis — often mistaken for Greek — does get some screen time) for their sense of homage to those who came before them.

Do these minor kinks detract from the overall message? Not at all, especially for younger people and those outside the Jewish baseball community for whom all this is brand-new information. These are “our guys,” our family. And who gets tired of thumbing through the old family photo album every now and then?

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